I never have known the joy of owning a small, pink, heart-shaped music box. In point of fact, I never will. I suppose, with two daughters in the home, that the purchase of such a box might be in the fatherly offing, but it won’t be for my own sake.
I am now more than familiar with heart-shaped boxes, however, because like many other Christians and persons of meaningful religious affiliation I am being publicly asked today to put my faith, my very religious liberty, in one. This personal right—one of Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” and the lodestar of New England’s first settlers fleeing religious persecution—is fast becoming the most contested cultural issue of our day.
One sees this at schools like my alma mater, Bowdoin College, which just effectively closed the school’s long-standing Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, a forty-year affiliate of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a group that helped make my time at Bowdoin so pleasurable and profitable. Similar actions have been taken in the California State University system and Vanderbilt University as colleges and universities attempt to stop the “discriminatory” practices of Christian groups that require leaders to practice biblical sexual ethics. This includes, per texts like Matthew 19:3-4 and Romans 1, that student leaders be chaste, faithful to spouses if married, and not involved in same-sex sin.
Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts has just come under fire for seeking exemption from a planned executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Gordon—as with hundreds upon hundreds of religious colleges and universities—requires that employees not lead a homosexual lifestyle. This core biblical conviction, however, is now the guarantor of “discrimination” according to many voices, including Boston Globe writer Adrian Walker. Walker wrote a blistering piece denouncing Gordon President D. Michael Lindsay, who joined with thirteen other religious leaders in seeking the aforementioned exemption:
The school’s autonomy isn’t threatened by an antidiscrimination order — unless, of course, the school really is committed to homophobic hiring practices. If Lindsay really feels so strongly about the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the school can always opt out of receiving federal money. Of course, there hasn’t been any mention of doing that.
Walker concluded his denunciation of Gordon on a chilling note:
A lot of people are wary, and understandably so, about the creeping right to use religion to opt out of laws one simply doesn’t believe in. It doesn’t pacify anyone to proclaim your right to discriminate in a letter to the White House, then claim that you have no intention of doing so.
Walker has turned the freedom of association—including the Constitution-based freedom of religious groups to govern themselves by their own views—into “the creeping right to use religion to opt out of laws.” It’s as if, instead of an academically rigorous and politically diverse Christian college, Gordon College were an outlaw pack running roughshod over Boston’s North Shore, radicals clad in the fiercest of business-casual styles, pillaging and administrating with unchecked discriminatory instincts.
One struggles to know how to respond to Walker’s allegations. If religious groups like Bowdoin Christian Fellowship or Gordon College have to amend their beliefs to conform to the New Sexual Moralism, then they are not in fact able to practice their religion. Of course, the silencing of evangelicals is not without precedent. The zesty cry of the French Revolution was “Liberté!,” but you could not blame several thousand massacred Catholic priests for mistaking it as “Mort!”
Those who would silence and even shut down religious groups have no problem with religious belief. One is perfectly free to speak one’s views out loud (for a while, anyway). The problem comes, it seems, when religious groups make the mistake of actually abiding by their convictions. This is a bridge too far.
Here is religion in America, 2014, as its appointed foes would have it: chastened and starving. It does not direct, drive, inform, and shape life, private and public. It may only warble a praise chorus, smile a blessing, intone a cherished maxim. It surely has no role to play in public life; indeed, by its very nature, it is out of bounds, even though many of the choicest features of American life—our political process, our thriving philanthropic system, our very notion of freedom—have been influenced by it. Religion—it is typically addressed in such nuance-less terms, as if America’s vibrant spiritual tapestry were a dusty monochromatic rug—now is sorely threatened. Despite its longstanding tie to personal virtue, it may well lose social protection, it surely must surrender its claim to personal authority, and should it assert itself in the court of sexual opinion, it is not only to be silenced but to be shamed.
In high school, many of us read the story of Hester Prynne, the character created for The Scarlet Letter by my fellow Bowdoin alum Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hester, in Hawthorne’s rather grim presentation of history, had to wear the famed scarlet letter for her adultery. At least Hester was able to remain a member of society, however. The mark of shame Evangelicals and their Catholic friends wear is such that they cannot even appear in public.
Those that remain do so under conditions. They may keep for themselves a heart-shaped box, small and worn. There they must tuck away their religious liberty, keeping it under lock and tiny key. Once in a great while, when they have followed the rules, they may take it out. There, they may hold it close to their heart, savoring the piety of a precious moment, listening to the little music box, pink and heart-shaped, play a long-forgotten song.
Owen Strachan is the author of Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome and is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College.